Civil Law vs Criminal Law

Cite this article as:"Civil Law vs Criminal Law," in The Business Professor, updated January 1, 2015, last accessed May 25, 2020,
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Civil Law versus Criminal Law
What is the difference between civil law and criminal law?

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What is “civil law” and “criminal law”?

Do not be confused by the various uses of the word civil within the legal system. Civil law may refer to a system of law, but it generally refers to civil actions — which are legal actions between individuals. In this case, it means suing or bringing a lawsuit against an individual, a business, or a governmental body. Criminal law, in contrast, refers to the rules and procedures for enforcing those rules prohibiting “bad acts” of individuals within the governing body’s jurisdiction. While civil actions seek compensation for losses or an order from the court restricting certain conduct, criminal actions seek to punish individuals for violating a criminal law. Often, an individual’s actions will subject her to a criminal prosecution by the government as well as a civil action by an injured party.

Discussion: What are some types of criminal activity that are also civil causes of action? Can you think of any examples of criminal prosecutions that resulted in acquittal in a criminal trial but resulted in liability in a civil lawsuit?

Discussion Input

  • Criminal activities that are also civil causes of action. The major causes of action include assault, fraud, slander, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, battery. In Ohio, there is a statute that permits civil law suits based on criminal acts. This statute provides that “if anyone is injured by a criminal act, he can be compensated fully unless exempted by the court; he can be compensated for the attorney fees and recover punitive damages if authorized by a section in the revised code”. So, any criminal activity can be a civil cause of action based on the state laws. Examples of criminal prosecutions that resulted in acquittal in a criminal trial but resulted in liability in a civil lawsuit?  A good example of such a case is the O.J Simpsons case. He was first charged based on criminal for killing his ex wife and her friend. According to criminal law, O.J had committed a crime, which was killing, and was subjected to the consequences set by the Government. He was acquitted for this. However, the State of California sued O.J on a civil lawsuit because murder doesn’t just affect the individual, it affects the society. In this case, O.J was found guilty and sentenced to 33 years in prison.

Practice Question: Anne-Marie is generally a likable person. One day while hanging out with her friends, she gets into an argument with Wilson. During the argument, he says some very offensive and slanderous things about Anne-Marie. Unwilling to take Wilson’s verbal abuse, Anne-Marie sprays him in the face with a can of mace that she carries in her purse. Wilson falls to the ground in pain. Some bystanders see Wilson in pain and call the police and rescue squad. It turns out that Wilson suffers severe damage to his sight because of the caustic spray. Because of the incident, Anne-Marie ultimately serves 30 days in jail and is forced to pay a judgment to Wilson for $50,000. Is Anne-Marie’s punishment a result of criminal law, civil law, or both?

Proposed Answer

  • In my opinion, this is a result of both criminal and civil law. Anne-Marie was involved in an argument with Wilson. The argument was not life threatening but she still used the spray, a criminal activity since she intentionally caused physical harm. Her criminal activities attracted the civil law since it caused damage to Wilson’s eyesight. While Anne-Marie was made subject to criminal proceedings from the state, she was also sued by Wilson. As plaintiff, Wilson received a judgment of $50K against Anne-Marie.

Academic Research

Katz, Elizabeth, Criminal Law in a Civil Guise: The Evolution of Family Courts and Support Laws (August 6, 2018). University of Chicago Law Review, 2019. Available at SSRN:

Klein, Susan R., Redrawing the Civil-Criminal Boundary. Buffalo Criminal Law Review, Symposium Issue on Criminal Procedure, No. 2, No. 2, Spring 1999. Available at SSRN: or

Fellmeth, Aaron Xavier, Civil and Criminal Sanctions in the Constitution and Courts. Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 94, November 2005. Available at SSRN:

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